Inside the walls of academia, climate change is studied and debated much like any other subject – with professional integrity and respect. In the public arena, however, the discussion of climate change is “highly polarized” – largely a shouting (if not boxing) match that involves a lot of name-calling and very little respect. Whether and how journalists should treat or engage in that debate was the subject of a number of panel discussions at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this past weekend. The sessions I attended were thought-provoking but produced little in the way of concrete action plans for ratcheting down the tension level and fostering a meaningful discussion about one of the most pressing issues of our time. I fully appreciate the complexity of the problem, but (call me naïve) I had been hoping to come home with one or two nuggets of wisdom I could immediately put to work.
I found one this morning on The Front Page: the Blog of the American Meteorological Society. Executive director Keith Seitter announced that he will be replacing loaded pejoratives like “denier” or “alarmist” with the terms “convinced” or “unconvinced.”
This terminology helps in a number of ways. First and foremost, it does not carry with it the baggage of value judgment, since for any particular scientific argument there is no intrinsically positive or negative connotation associated with being either convinced or unconvinced. In addition, this terminology highlights that we are talking about a scientific, evidence-based, issue that should be resolved through logical reasoning and not something that should be decided by our inherent belief system. (And for that reason, I work very hard to avoid saying someone does or does not “believe” in global warming, or similar phrases.)
Furthermore, Seitter dismisses the term “skeptic” as misleading:
Skepticism is a cornerstone upon which science is built. All of us who have been trained as scientists should be skeptics with respect to all scientific issues — demanding solid evidence for a hypothesis or claim before accepting it, and rejecting any position if the evidence makes it clear that it cannot be correct (even if it had, in the past, been well-accepted by the broader community).
I can’t promise that I will never again use the word “skeptic” but I fully agree with Seitter’s reasoning and second hisr official adoption of the convinced/unconvinced terminology. With so much at stake, it’s worth a few extra words to describe conflicting perspectives accurately and respectfully.